- From Chicago to L.A., Boston to St. Louis, the common thread among recent Stanley Cup winners is the presence of a two-way forward, who can neutralize an offensive threat when he isn't being one. In today's NHL, there's nothing more valuable than a star who works both ways.
This story appears in the Oct. 7, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
When Predators general manager David Poile thinks about the importance of two-way forwards, two names leap to mind.
The first is Guy Carbonneau. Un bon choix. Thanks in part to Poile, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee, the former Montreal center will join the class of 2019 in his 17th year of eligibility, the ultimate (if not overdue) recognition for a career that spanned three decades and included three Stanley Cups. An offensive terror coming out of Quebec major juniors (182 points in his last season for the Chicoutimi Saguenéens), Carbonneau had committed to reinventing himself upon joining the Canadiens full-time in 1982–83 and wound up commanding their suffocating checking line for the next dozen seasons. “He wasn’t always the top player,” Poile says, “but his value was tremendous.”
The second name requires slightly more explanation. Colton Sissons could easily be mistaken for a white-shoe law firm, rather than the exemplar of a leaguewide trend. But there was a reason Poile prioritized signing the 25-year-old, penalty-killing, bottom-six forward with 77 career points to a whopping seven-year, $20 million extension in July. It wasn’t Nashville’s splashiest summer move; that happened earlier in the month, when Poile landed prized free-agent center Matt Duchene. But securing Sissons was high on Poile’s to-do list as the Predators seek to end a franchise-long title drought.
“It’s that ability to play in multiple situations, and that versatility to effectively move up and down the lineup,” Poile says. “There’s been an evolution of these players. It’s not an absolute. But the expectation now is that [two-way responsibilities are] part of everyone’s job.”
From the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron to the Kings’ Anze Kopitar to the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews to the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, world-class, well-rounded centers have headlined the most successful teams over the past decade, each equally capable of both neutralizing an opponent’s top threat for 20 minutes and breaking the game wide open at the other end. “There’s always been two-way forwards,” says Blues coach Craig Berube, a 17-year NHL veteran winger. “But they’re more important now than ever.”
The latest entry on that esteemed list was added 3½ months ago, when St. Louis clinched its first championship on the broad shoulders of its bushy-bearded pivot, whom Berube calls “clearly one of the smartest players I’ve been around as a coach and a player.”
On the morning of his personal Stanley Cup celebration day in August, before the small-town parades and the helicopter ride and the backyard concert put on by Dallas Green, his favorite Canadian musician, Ryan O’Reilly stopped to take a picture at the barn.
Framed by acres of corn and bean fields, the structure is tucked behind the old schoolhouse in Brucefield, Ont., where his family used to live. The outside is nothing special: faded yellow facade, metal gambrel roof, no bigger than a three-car garage. And yet the barn was where the 28-year-old developed into one of the NHL’s premier two-way talents, just the second player to win the Selke (best defensive forward) and Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) Trophies in the same season. (Canadiens icon Bob Gainey was the first, in 1978–79.)
“The ultimate little training facility,” O’Reilly says. “A lot of memories there.”
A self-described “high-performance coach,” his father, Brian, would regularly hold workouts for pro athletes, from beach-volleyball and basketball players to skiers and cricketers. While his dad’s clients grunted through grueling circuits, young Ryan would watch with an increasing itch to join. “So he developed a strong sense of work ethic,” Brian says, “because he’d see other guys puking over a bucket, then going to the next drill.”
Ryan learned a great deal more once he began working under his father’s tutelage, skills apparent whenever he hits the ice for St. Louis now. The strong center of gravity that helps him win puck battles along the walls? A product of holding yoga poses on a balance beam. The hand-eye coordination used to casually swat down opposing passes like fat flies? Honed by simultaneously juggling a golf ball on his hockey stick and climbing over hurdles. A former social worker with a psychology background, Brian also employed what he calls “mentally aware drills” that taught Ryan to multitask, for example, by solving multiplication equations while stickhandling through an obstacle course.
“That’s all hockey is,” Ryan says. “You have so many things flowing together, you’re just constantly taking information and processing. As much as you can train that, the better.”
The barn may have nurtured his strengths, but nature deserves credit too. Born 4½ years after his brother, Cal, Ryan was always at a physical disadvantage in neighborhood games of shinny. So like many younger siblings, he learned to compensate through an age-old tactic: annoyance. “I always took pride in being good at frustrating guys, forcing them to make a mistake,” O’Reilly says. “How can I not give them anything and make them feel like they’re doing nothing?”
Even now he takes great pleasure when he sees the telltale signs from an opponent. “Maybe he starts bickering with his linemates, or the bad body language kicks in,” O’Reilly says. “Then you know you’re doing really good.” In this pursuit, his greatest weapon is his unique stick, a custom Warrior model featuring a toe that takes a sharp curve, allowing him to fishhook loose pucks out of scrums—yoink!—before heading on the attack. “That’s one of the things O’Reilly can do as good as any player I’ve seen,” Berube says, “creating something out of nothing in tight spaces.”
Though he broke into the league as a checking forward for Colorado, O’Reilly blossomed offensively for the Blues last year, posting career highs in assists (49), points (77) and shots on goal (234) despite starting just 48.0% of his shifts at five-on-five in the offensive zone. Thanks to a nifty redirection past Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask in Game 7, he also became the first player to score in four straight Cup finals games since 1985. His company? Some dude named Gretzky.
But perhaps O’Reilly’s most dominant shift of the series against Boston did not result in a point. It started with a defensive-zone draw against four-time Selke winner Bergeron in the second period of Game 5 at TD Garden, a draw O’Reilly won cleanly. Over the next 25 seconds he patrolled the area in front of St. Louis’s net as Boston regained possession, then stole the puck back by stick-lifting winger Brad Marchand along the end boards. With a nifty behind-the-back pass from below the goal line, O’Reilly sparked a controlled breakout.
“Just trying to anticipate the puck, where it’s exactly going,” he says, rewatching the sequence after a recent practice. On the laptop screen he then outraces the coverage through the neutral zone and smacks a pair of shots on Rask from close range. “That’s what you want: make plays, get it out.”
Like Bergeron, this generation’s unofficial totem of two-way excellence, O’Reilly is not the flashiest stickhandler or the fastest skater. But they share a relentlessness on both ends of the ice, whether carrying the puck or hunting to get it back.
As they started their offseason training this past summer, Brian tried persuading his son to take it easy, to let his body rest after skating a total of 108 games in 2018–19, tied for second most all-time. Ryan refused.
“He can never do enough,” Brian says. “He’s just, go-go-go-go-go.”
Such is the life of a two-way forward.
Nine years ago, when EA Sports released the latest installment of its hockey video game, NHL 11, Jonathan Toews graced the cover of the North American edition. Featuring the captain of the newly crowned Stanley Cup champions made perfect sense, but it was also fitting for a subtler reason. Among the upgraded features—broken sticks, more realistic face-offs—the game had also unveiled a new player category: the two-way forward.
Until then, forwards had simply been classified as snipers, playmakers or grinders. But upon noticing a gradual shift throughout the league, associate producer Andy Agostini and his colleagues adjusted accordingly. “It used to be your bottom forwards were about being there to agitate and be aggressive on the puck,” Agostini says. “Now most of the league are two-way forwards who produce offensively and defensively.” Take his beloved Canucks, for instance; in NHL 20, nine roster players are labeled “two-way forwards.”
In (actual, not virtual) reality, forwards have been capable of thriving at both ends for generations. “You hear a lot of talk about two-way forwards,” columnist Dink Carroll lamented in the Dec. 11, 1941, issue of the Montreal Gazette, “but they are getting to be as rare in hockey as the old double-end skate.” As such, it doesn’t take long to tick off the all-time greats.
Among the first was Dave Keon, the Maple Leafs’ bedrock through the 1960s and early ’70s, who learned his craft while at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School, where his junior hockey coach also happened to be a Catholic priest. “Father David Bauer told me, ‘If you can score three goals every day, you don’t have to worry about checking,’” Keon says. “Well, I wasn’t going to score three every day.”
Then came Montreal’s Jacques Lemaire, the ace sidekick to Guy Lafleur and Steve Schutt. “They never worried about their own end, because Lemaire was going to be there,” Keon says. And Flyers center Bobby Clarke, the Broad Street Bullies’ resident Swiss Army knife. The Islanders’ Bryan Trottier, as well as Sergei Fedorov and late-career Steve Yzerman of the Red Wings, all fit the mold. And today’s generation was reared on YouTube clips of Detroit star Pavel Datsyuk pickpocketing players in the neutral zone before scoring on the other end. “That’s the spirit of hockey, the ability to catch the opposition off-guard, flat-footed,” Trottier says. “Those are the most fun players to watch. Sneaky little f------.”
Asked which current two-way forwards he enjoys, Trottier pauses and sighs. “God, there’s so many on every team now.”
To account for the sudden influx these days, Clarke cites the elimination of the two-line pass, which incentivized offensive talents to try harder in their end. Poile points to evolutions in defensive tactics, as today’s coaches preach gap control and structured zone schemes to protect their own nets. “Not to be disrespectful of the past, but the game was a lot more wide open in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s,” the GM says. “The backchecking was not at the level it is today.” Hurricanes bench boss Rod Brind’Amour singles out technology. “You can’t hide from video,” says the two-time Selke winner who steered Carolina to the conference finals last season. “Playing in your end is stressed on every team now.”
Ultimately, everything comes back to the NHL’s recent emphasis toward speed and skill. Gone are lumbering fourth-liners skating six minutes a night. Ditto for third-line checkers, tasked solely with shadowing in the defensive zone. And thanks to the proliferation of puck-moving defensemen, who freely pinch deep into the offensive zone, every forward has to have his head on a swivel. Now, to be a one-way player is to receive a one-way ticket to the minors.
Another indication: recent Selke voting trends. When the award began in 1977, it was intended to honor a forward who would “do the unsung, often unrecognized work in hockey,” as league president John Ziegler put it. And while Gainey was a natural choice back then, his career-high 47 points wouldn’t hold a candle to current candidates: Of the past 13 winners, only Bergeron has gotten away with averaging less than 0.87 of a point in his Selke season. “To me, that award is the most important one,” Brind’Amour says. “It used to be an afterthought. They never dreamt of giving it to a guy who scored points. Now it’s the guy that every team wants: gifted offensively, but someone you don’t want to play against.”
On a sunny September afternoon in South Florida, the future of two-way forwards polishes off a banana and sits down to discuss his craft. The white towel wrapped around his neck is still dripping with sweat from a postpractice workout. His right wrist sports a black band that reads limitless.
The word seems appropriate, given the current trajectory of Aleksander Barkov’s career. To anyone who only took notice of the Panthers’ 24-year-old center last season, when he recorded 96 points (10th leaguewide) while registering an absurdly pious eight penalty minutes over 22:21 of average ice time in 82 games: You had been missing out.
Physically he is Anze Kopitar cloned, another 6' 3", 200-plus-pound, lefthanded, jack-of-all-zones pivot. “Massive human being,” says Montreal center Max Domi. “Very strong on the puck.” At the same time, Barkov possesses the silky hands and creativity that make him one of the NHL’s premier shootout artists, not to mention a downright-Datsyukian level of larceny. “He’s stealth,” teammate Vincent Trocheck says. “Picks your pocket without you even knowing.”
Growing up in Tampere, Finland, where his dad, Aleksander Sr., starred as an offensive-minded center for the local pro team, Barkov naturally (if ironically) gravitated to the other end of the rink. “I was always backchecking,” he explains. Even after joining the Panthers in 2013, Barkov would receive regular calls and texts from his dad, scolding him for neglecting to stay on the attack. “I’d be thinking so much about defense, I’d leave the offensive zone before the puck even got there.” Barkov says.
Armed with an unusually long Warrior stick that stands as tall as his forehead, Barkov circles the neutral zone like a hawk—reading the play and waiting to strike. “Every time you get the puck, it feels like he’s right there,” Red Wings center Dylan Larkin says. It is not just a feeling: Over the past two seasons, only Edmonton dynamo Connor McDavid has recorded more takeaways (210) than Barkov (182).
And like O’Reilly, Barkov has only just begun coming into his own as an offensive threat. Strong chemistry with wingers Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov paved the way for Barkov’s point explosion in 2018–19. His signature highlight came on Feb. 17 against the Canadiens, a between-the-legs breakaway goal chipped over Carey Price’s blocker shoulder from point-blank range. “I would’ve fell on my face and hit my head on the post if I tried it,” Trocheck says. “He’s just that much better than everybody else.”
Entering his seventh season, Barkov figures to develop more under new coach Joel Quenneville, the mustachioed maestro of Chicago’s mid-2010s dynasty. Quenneville draws similarities between Barkov and a younger version of his former pupil, Toews: the physical strength they bring to puck battles, the 20-plus minutes they log, the 53-plus percent of face-offs they win. “Smart, dependable, can do it all on both sides of the puck,” Quenneville says. “That’s the high-end art that’s fun to be a part of.”
In this regard, Quenneville is also reminded of a former teammate from his time as a Whalers defenseman in the 1980s, a Hall of Fame center whom he calls “probably the most underrated player in the history of the game.” The origins of Ron Francis’s two-way acumen begin at his childhood home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where he and his father would bide time before Hockey Night in Canada by diagramming defensive situations on a dry-erase board. “How do you position yourself for rebounds, how do you anticipate where the puck is going?” says Francis, who later won two Stanley Cups and a Selke with the Penguins. “I always took a lot of pride in that part of the game.”
Now the general manager of the NHL’s 32nd franchise, in Seattle—official debut: October 2021—Francis understands the importance of stocking his future lineup with well-rounded forwards. “It’s tough to find those guys in general,” Francis says. “It’s probably tougher to find those guys in an expansion draft. But we’ll certainly work hard to unearth them. They’re so valuable in today’s game.”
No two ways about it.